Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators. This week, we're chatting with Amira-Sade Moodie, a California-based painter and multi-hyphenate artist.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth feature in our series, Conversations with Black Creators, which is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
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Amira is a California-based painter--a phrase so completely reductive to who she is that I rewrote this preface a hundred times. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I would go about introducing this infectious ball of light in a way that would do her multi-hyphenism--or astonishing warmth--justice. Nevertheless, I’ll try.
Amira has been a New York-based film student, casting professional, stylist, and singer. She’s been a Hawaii-based WWOOFer and temporary drifter. She’s been a writer and a poet. She’s lived, studied, and worked at meditation centers and yoga retreats. She’s moved about the world as a straight female. She’s struggled to find her truth and landed (very) happily in a queer identity and polyamorous relationship.
Make no mistake: just because Amira “has been” these things does not mean she will never be them again (except a WWOOFer in Hawaii...more on that later). She expressed both elation and frustration with how little control she seems to have over how her creative spirit will choose to express itself from moment to moment. I got the sense that anything she’s ever done is never finished, but rather paused.
As children, many of us are told--either by caretakers or by Disney movies--to just “follow your heart,” and I’ve never met anyone who took that charge so seriously. I don’t believe that Amira has this incredible Life Resume™️ simply because she’s flighty or detached. I think she’s just so in tune with her heart, and the beauty of the world around her, that she is compelled to give herself infinite space for expression.
Listening to her was a remarkable experience, and I hope that this piece communicates even a fraction of her joy, wisdom, strength, and tenderness.
Hey Amira! Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Hi, my name’s Amira. I’m a visual artist. I’m Black. I’m queer. I’m 32. I started working in film, and now I’m doing a lot of painting.
Ah, yes! I saw your gorgeous paintings when I was doing my initial research, but I didn’t know you worked in film as well. What did you do?
I went to school for film. I graduated from [School of Visual Arts] in 2010 and studied screenwriting. After I graduated, I managed a casting studio in Manhattan for about three years. After awhile I was just like, “Wow, this is not what I want to be doing.” So I moved to a farm in Hawaii and lived there for a year.
Wow, you were really done!
[laughs] Well, apparently not, because I went right back to New York after that! I decided to just freelance. I wanted to work in the film industry, but in a way that would give me time to write on the side, so I was a wardrobe assistant and stylist for about eight years. Since then I’ve been writing shorts, and I’m working on a feature [film] with a writing partner.
Ok, so you’re painting, filming, styling, writing...I hear there’s some singing in there too...is there anything artistic you don’t do?
[laughs] I try to do a little bit of everything! I just have so much going on internally all the time, so I’m constantly looking for the best tool to communicate what I’m feeling at any given moment. Recently, it’s been painting. But I get kind of nervous because I don’t know when it’ll switch from painting to something else, and I won’t paint anymore.
Do you experience “switches” like that a lot?
Yeah, actually. For example, I was in a band with a good friend in New York. We did pretty well, booking a lot of shows and stuff. We started [the band] right when I was going through really intense ups and downs in a relationship, so I had all these emotions to get out, but as I worked through them with music I was like, “Huh, ya know, I think I’m ready to move on.” But people were like, “Uhhh, but you have shows to do?” That was hard, because I can’t push it if that’s not the way my heart wants to express itself, you know?
So, for now, I have switched gears to painting, but I feel a bit anxious every time I sit down to paint because I never know when the expression will want to change again. When it does, I’ll just have to go with it and be ok with the fact that I might disappoint people who are enjoying this form of expression from me.
"It’s funny how you can be so sure of what you want, and the road just changes."
Of all your creative endeavors, which is your first love and when did you discover it?
I want to say performing, in general. Singing was definitely how it started, because that’s what I grew up around. My dad’s a singer and he always had a microphone laying around the house. We did karaoke all the time.
When I got interested in film [as an adolescent], I thought, “Oh, acting would be fun!” I went to a summer camp for actors when I was 12 and the teachers told me I had talent, so I decided I wanted to go to New York and become an actor and singer.
After growing up a bit and giving it some consideration, I thought, “Wow, that’s a long way to go if I don’t know that I’m actually going to make it.” So I decided I’d just enter the industry behind the scenes and try to get in front of the camera at some point.
Once I started studying screenwriting and working in casting, the desire to act kind of dissipated. I was happy. It’s funny how you can be so sure of what you want, and the road just changes.
Wild Child, Amira-Sade Moodie
Yeah, I feel like life makes a game out of surprising us. Nothing ever happens the way you think it’s going to.
Yeah! And the one time everything actually did go according to plan for me was after graduating - it was terrible. I set my sights on finding a well paying job, took all the steps, and once I was there I was like, “YEAH! I made it!” But then I looked around and I was like, “What the f*ck? Why am I here?” [laughs] So I quit my job and ran off to that farm in Hawaii.
What made you choose Hawaii?
Honestly, I just wanted to get as far away from NYC as I possibly could. I was working a jillion hours and being pummeled with noise all the time. I didn’t have a passport, so I found the furthest point I could reach without leaving the country. I had never even farmed. [laughs] I don’t know what made me decide to do that.
Were you in a program like WWOOF or something?
Yeah, exactly! It was supposed to be a three month work trade thing, but I was there for almost a year because, after the initial three months, the farmer just up and left in the middle of the night with one of the WWOOFers. I guess they fell in love. [laughs] So crazy. That kind of screwed over the land owners, who didn’t really know much about farming. They just wanted to own a farm.
(Writer’s note: that’s a thing. It’s called hobby farming, and it’s good recreation, if you can afford it. Good hobby farmers typically know something about farming before they embark on that kind of venture, though. Ahem. I digress. Back to Amira.)
When the farmer left, the land owners came to me and asked if I wanted to work full time. I didn’t have anything to go back to the mainland for, so I thought, why not?
It seemed like a good idea at first, but it wasn’t long before I was being seriously taken advantage of. I was making, I think, $100 a week? I got room and board, but my room was just a bed and a lamp in this half-constructed brewery they were working on. It didn’t even have a door that closed. [laughs] I actually liked it, but all things considered, the amount of work I was doing in relation to my quality of life was pretty out of balance. I stood up for myself and asked for things to change, and I was kicked off the farm.
I hopped around after that with two other girls, trying to find places to stay and ways to make money. We heard about a macadamia nut farm that paid $10 per bag you filled. It took us seven hours to fill one bag. We split the $10 three ways. [laughs]
So there I am--in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any money. I was basically homeless for two weeks. My parents ended up buying me a plane ticket home...and I missed the flight. God, it was a disaster.
OK, I see why you bailed on Hawaii.
[laughs] Yeah, it was an experience, to say the least. I’d like to go back...just, under different circumstances.
Heal the World, Amira-Sade Moodie
"That was the first and only time I tried to plan anything. It really reminded me that my process--albeit shapeless and intuitive--is ok just the way it is."
You kind of nodded to this earlier, but what does your creative process look like?
Well, since I’m painting now, I’ll narrow it down to that. I meditate a lot. A little over a year ago, I moved out here to the West Coast to a Buddhist meditation center (Mangalam Center). One of their main practices is Full Presence Mindfulness, which is essentially a practice to guide you into experiencing every single layer of a moment.
That really resonated with me because I constantly feel so much--I perceive all those layers all the time--so I use that a lot in my painting. No matter what I’m doing, I’m perpetually intrigued by everything around me. It gets overwhelming sometimes. I need a lot of alone time, because I’m constantly overstimulated.
I painted this piece one time that says, blessed with the curse of feeling it all. I love it, because it’s beautiful, but it’s exhausting. Being at the Center helped me understand that it’s ok that I feel all of this. It’s ok that it can be exhausting. Meditation helped me to understand and harness that quality, instead of feeling like there was something wrong with me.
Part of that is just going with the flow; creating what moves me. Sometimes I think people get frustrated with me because I never have a plan. There was one time I did plan to do a piece with all these super light, pretty colors. When it was finished, I got up and accidentally knocked a jar of black ink all over it. [laughs] I don’t even know why that jar was there!
At first, I was like [GASP], but then I thought, “Nope, this is what it wanted to say.” So I just put some tiny white dots in with the spilled ink to create a galaxy effect. I posted it [on Instagram] and people responded really well to it. I was like, Ok, Universe, I see you. [laughs] That was the first and only time I tried to plan anything. It really reminded me that my process--albeit shapeless and intuitive--is ok just the way it is.
Sweet Dreams, Amira-Sade Moodie (This is the piece that begged for spilled ink.)
Just to go back to the Full Presence Mindfulness for a second, can you explain a little more about that and how it relates to your art?
It’s really just about noticing every little thing that’s happening in a moment. For example, you can single out colors--intentionally see all the colors in your space, but don’t attach them to anything; you don’t see a blue book, you just see blue. You can do the same thing with sounds. It’s just a very stripped down way of perceiving your environment.
So, if you’re looking around the room and seeing only colors without attaching them to anything, does that make it easier for you to process them as emotion and then express that in a painting?
To-ta-lly. Totally, totally. I don’t have anything to add to that. That’s exactly what it does for me.
"It feels good to know who I am, but it’s hard when I don’t feel like I can let it out. This is actually the first time that I’ve felt confident and comfortable identifying as a queer person."
You are both Black and queer, which seems to be a wildly disadvantageous combination in the world we live in. Have you experienced any unique challenges to being a creator as a result of your identity?
I think the main barrier has been my inability to feel safe expressing my true self due to a lack of representation in the world around me. It feels good to know who I am, but it’s hard when I don’t feel like I can let it out. This is actually the first time that I’ve felt confident and comfortable identifying as a queer person.
What’s different about right now, that you feel more comfortable expressing yourself that way?
There’s a lot of bullshit in the world, but I’ve also seen more of a universal ‘anything goes’ mentality. That makes me feel like I can express things that I’ve been suppressing for a really long time.
Was there a certain event that resonated with you and made you comfortable expressing yourself, or was it more of a gradual progression, seeing greater acceptance in the world around you?
It’s a combination. When I was with my band a few years ago, my bandmate and I were sort of grappling with our identities. We’d only been with men, but we didn’t feel like that was our only road, so we started exploring those ideas in our music.
Not long after that, we noticed that the people who wanted to hear us happened to be almost all gender queer people. We did this one show that felt like magic. There were non-binary people all around. Seeing the trueness of their being, I remember thinking...these people are not trying to fit into a box, they’re really being all of themselves. We felt like we’d found our home.
At the same time, I had this oh shit moment, like, “This is completely opposite to how I was raised and what I’ve always been told I’m supposed to be.” It took me many years, but I’m finally coming into a place where I don’t think about those things so much anymore. This just feels so right. This is who I am.
"There’s this thing about being Black and queer in America...I think there’s freedom in this sense of...I’m already 'wrong'? So how much more wrong can I be?"
How have you navigated that with your family? Do they know?
Welllll...I started dating a female-bodied person this year, then started dating a male-bodied person shortly after that, and I’m exploring polyamory [with them]. I told my mom, whose response was basically, “Cannot compute. And do not tell your dad.” [laughs]
My mom is my best friend. For most of my life, she’s known me as a straight female. Living my truth has been a challenge in our relationship because a mom wants to feel like she knows her daughter, you know? And this is all so new and foreign to her. So I just tried to position it like, “Well, now you know me more!” She’s taking it in and trying, for sure. She hears me. My dad has no idea. [grimacing face] It’s all happening now! We’re doing it live!
You seem to take on challenges as a truly free spirit--from your remarkably diversified interests, to owning your identity, to moving to Hawaii on a whim. I would live in a perpetual panic attack. How do you do that?
Well, don’t get me wrong; that’s there for me too. [laughs] There’s this thing about being Black and queer in America...I want to say this without being insensitive. [pauses] I think there’s freedom in this sense of...I’m already “wrong”? [shrugs] So how much more wrong can I be?
Almost like, what else are you going to take from me? Like you have nothing to lose?
Yes, exactly. I just need to be who I am.
Who are three creatives you admire?
Vincent Van Gogh. I’m not a big fan of his style of painting, but his spirit has been haunting me for years. [laughs] James Blake covered Don McLean’s song Vincent, and when I heard it, it just really struck me. I didn’t even know it was about Van Gogh at first.
After that, I got really curious about Van Gogh’s story. We all know about Starry Night, but [as I read about his life] it really resonated with me how he was almost...tortured, by the beauty in the world. Ever since, whenever I’ve hit a big transition in my life, I’ve seen something related to Van Gogh--I’ll see a painting, or someone will mention him randomly, or I’ll hear that song.
I bet it feels encouraging to know there are other people out there that view the world the way you do, though it seems like a rare quality.
Yeah, it is. I carry a lot of sadness along with--and directly tied to--the beauty in the world. I’ve always had a hard time understanding that. Reading about Van Gogh’s life made me realize that a lot of it stems from looking at other people and thinking, “There is so much beauty in the world. Do you see it?” I look at the sky constantly and just ask my friends, “Have you SEEN how blue it is?” And they’re just like, “Yes, Amira, we’ve seen the sky...every day.” [laughs]
"We live in a world with a lot of oppression--but there’s another world existing alongside it with eternal space for all the parts of you that want to be free. You have to remember that."
Ok, two more creatives you admire!
Yes, yes. Second is Basquiat. He had that same spirit--not thinking about “creating art” or “being an artist,” but being alive and looking around and expressing how you feel about what you see.
The third is a combination of my five nieces and nephews. Honestly, a lot of the techniques I use in my art are from things I’ve seen them do. My three year old niece draws these scribbles in a really fascinating way, so I’ve been trying to replicate those in my work. [laughs] Children are the purest creators. Their expression is magical, before they have all this shit [from growing up] thrown on them.
Writer's note: I fell in love with this screengrab (left) from Amira's Watercolor Lullaby video, so she printed it and gifted it to me. Bless her heart, she also surprised me with a beautiful original piece (right). I can't wait to frame them.
What advice would you give to young Black creators, specifically?
Do what you feel deep inside. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not right. Trust your feelings. It’s not going to be people saying, “You’re weird” forever. We live in a world with a lot of oppression--but there’s another world existing alongside it with eternal space for all the parts of you that want to be free. You have to remember that.
What's your favorite thing you've ever created?
Right before I turned 30, I was trying to connect with my inner child and understand her. I started to rewrite lullabies. I rewrote Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star--I changed the melody and the lyrics just a little bit--and I would go on walks and just sing it to myself. It felt so good.
When I started experiencing all this ‘newness’ in relationships, past hurts and fears that I thought had been resolved started resurfacing. Going back to that song and sharing it with my partners was very healing. It’s a timeless thing I created that I’ll always have to soothe that little girl inside me.
Writer's note: STOP. Go back to where I've linked 'rewrote' and listen to her rendition of this song. It's 1 minute and 38 seconds of heart-tugging bliss.
What’s your favorite taco filling?
Mushrooms! I had a mushroom taco recently, so that’s my answer for now. [laughs] It had mushrooms and cabbage and chipotle mayo sauce. YUM.
Mad love to Amira for sharing her time--and crazy soothing energy--with us. You can follow her on Instagram here, view her beautiful paintings here, and listen to a very secret, super pretty song she wrote and performed here.
Check out our other incredible features in the Conversations series here!